Wild swimming, salty cured quail and a taste of Thai river culture await visitors to bucolic Prachinburi, just 80 kilometres northeast from Bangkok.
It’s a cool, damp, post-thunderstorm morning and the river stretches out wide, flat and still. Green fields and trees reach to the horizon across the water. The sky is mottled with grey and white clouds, suggesting another storm is on its way. There’s a low hum of traffic passing on the nearby road. The birds are hushed and respectful.
Diving into fresh water within minutes of waking is one of the best feelings in the world. The water is tepid and clear and deep enough that I don’t touch the bottom. The current is strong and after several, laboured minutes pounding upstream, the only option is to let go and float star-shaped back to the bank.
Wild swimming, whether in lakes, rivers, rock pools or the sea has developed a cult following in north America and Europe, where few dangerous creatures lurk beneath the surface to ruin your dip. In Asia, it’s unusual to find somewhere clean enough or safe enough for a freshwater plunge. But in Prachinburi, just 80km northeast of Bangkok, we have the perfect spot.
Cambodia lies to the east and the sea to the south; in the north, the foothills of the Sankamphaeng Mountains. Its central and southern areas are low-lying and dotted with rice fields and grasslands split by the Prachinburi river. Despite its proximity to the capital, Prachinburi province attracts few tourists and is known to many Thais mostly for its links to an on off-border dispute with Cambodia that turned violent in 2008.
In terms of accommodation, the grandest option is Arthit-Tara, a boutique lodge run by a stylish Thai couple and set on the banks of the river, hosting only a handful of guests at any one time. Its owners, Art and his girlfriend Kob have created an idiosyncratic, stylistically impeccable, rural weekend retreat.
There are three houses built facing a wooden jetty on the river. The first has two double bedrooms and large glass windows looking over the water. The second is a tiny, double bed hut with an old 80s Jacuzzi installed on the deck and an outdoor bathroom for hot showers under the stars. The last building is a two-storey house with a large wooden veranda.
“We’re not a resort or a hotel,” says Art, who designed and built the place, first as personal retreat and now for paying visitors. “There are a lot of people who wouldn’t get it. We definitely don’t offer karaoke.”
Alongside the river, we see local men and women pass by on canoes and small motorised dingys that can be hired hire for a small price, especially if you don’t mind sharing your ride with the catch of the day. Later, at dusk, our hosts at Arthit-Tara take us out in a boat well-stocked with beer and cut a deep foaming path through the water as thunderclouds roll in overhead. When we stop, Kob produces locally made khao kreab pak mor – traditional Thai sweet dumplings filled with nuts and chillis and wrapped in green, blue and purple petals from wild flowers. It turns out to be the most delicious thing we eat all weekend, although there’s plenty of competition.
At Arthit-Tara, the other highlights include mushrooms soaked in garlic and basil, snow flower buds cooked in Thai kapi source and deep-fried quail, which tastes a bit like posh pork scratching.
Inspired by the local cuisine, we head to the local fish and vegetable market on the Sunday. En route, we stop for bowls of simple noodle and vegetable soup, spiced with dry chillies and sprinkled with lime and sugar. Fish is a key ingredient in most of Prachinburi’s menus: local specialties include garlic-fried river prawns – juicy and soft – and pan-fried red fish, which is salty and succulent.
In Bangkok, markets are all about pushing through throngs of people and picking up bags of slightly wilted and possibly chemical-infused lettuce that sit and rot in the bottom of the fridge for a week until thrown out. In the undercover market we visit in Prachinburi, the stalls are piled high with lush, colourful produce, prices are low and we seem to be the only visitors of the day. In the fish section a woman is scooping bloody entrails into a plastic bucket next to several large tubs of live toads. Art and Kob buy some fish to release in the river as a Buddhist ritual and we all head off together to a nearby temple, carrying our purchases flapping and gasping in plastic bags.
“They always look back and say thank you before they disappear,” Kob explains.
She’s right: my fish appears especially grateful, splashing triumphantly before disappearing back into the depths.
Getting There: Trains leave regularly from Hua Lumphong while buses 58, 59 and 920 leave from Mo Chit 2.
Stay: Arthit-Tara (78-78/1 Moo 2 Amphor Bangyang; 0816-137-515; arthit-tara.com) is an ultra-hip homestay where you go to live in luxury in the wild, kick off your shoes and be hosted as though you’re a hand-picked guests. There are three lodges to choose from, with rates between B1800-B3200 depending on your needs. There are chefs on-site and Thai breakfasts, picnics and barbeques are on the menu.
BY Flora Bagenal